IDEMA: What is it that really makes us happy?

Someone once asked Sigmund Freud, "What makes us happy?" He famously replied, "Love and work."
Jul 17, 2013


That is a pretty good answer.

In my life, my happiest moments are with those whom I love or loved in years past. And I do think finding purpose and meaning in our vocations is a key to fulfillment.

What about pleasure? We all love a good meal, but food does not make for a happy life.

What about sex? Our culture has split sex from love, so sex more often than not makes us feel cheap. Despair often follows promiscuity. As noted in a famous Peggy Lee song, "is that all there is" when sex and deep, emotional love are not intertwined in a relationship?

Time magazine had a cover article in its July 8-15 double issue titled "The Pursuit of Happiness." The article had a lot to say about genes and biology. It had a lot to say about money (that having it makes us happier than not having it — duh!).

The article mentioned that loving marriages and having had loving parents contributes to happiness. You can find that insight in psychology 101.

The most interesting observation in the Time article is that out of 50 nations measured in the 2012 World Happiness Report, published by the Earth Institute of Columbia University, America ranked 23rd — far behind Iceland (No. 1), New Zeeland (2) and Denmark (3). Even Vietnam — a country we basically destroyed in the 1960s and '70s after taking over from France's failure in imperialism over there — is happier than America.

Amazingly, the Time piece had nothing to say about religion. Don't all the religions promise us happiness in one form or another? If America is a Christian nation, as the Religious Right constantly preaches (at times adding "Judaic" as a sop to the obvious fact that Jesus was not a Christian but a Jew through and through), then it seems that the Christian religion is not making us very happy.

Where is the disconnect?

I think the truth lies in what organized religion has become versus the simple truth that Jesus taught. In answer to a challenging question by the Pharisees, as to why he sat at a table with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus said: "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.'" (Matthew 10-13)

Jesus is criticizing the sacrificial cult of his day in the Jewish Temple — how it had become devoid of compassion and authenticity.

The history of the Christian church is filled with arguments, even wars, over styles of worship; many executions took place because of disputes about the nature of the Eucharist and the theology of the Trinity. Denominations have been created out of arguments over whether to be a high or low church, whether to use incense in worship and wear priestly vestments, whether priests should be celibate, whether women and gay people can be ordained, and on and on.

But at the heart of Jesus' ministry and teaching is simply this — happiness, fulfillment and meaning in life come from giving of oneself on behalf of others, to love our neighbor and feed him or her, to give our neighbor clothing and shelter, to give a cup of water to someone who is thirsty. The Parable of the Good Samaritan and the Parable of the Sheep and Goats are the best examples of the way Jesus wanted us to live. Many of his parables were in response to people who were miserable asking of Jesus a way out of their plight.

The article in Time failed to explore our society's narcissism: our self-preoccupation with how we live, how much money we have, how we look and our obsession with social media.

Anxiety disorders were prevalent in Freud's day. Narcissistic disorders dominate our present age.

If life is not giving you meaning and happiness, try working in the soup line at St. John's Episcopal Church in Grand Haven on Wednesday evenings and Sunday noon, or working in the daily noon soup line at the Western Theological Seminary in Holland. Try working on one of our Habitat for Humanity's homes in West Michigan. Try dedicating your life to a life of service to others rather than pursuing wealth.

As Jesus said, "For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?" (Luke 9:24-25)

— By the Rev. Henry Idema, Tribune religion columnist


Tri-cities realist

Sounds like the good reverend is confessing his sins here. Although I do agree that we, as a nation, are narcissistic, which perhaps explains why we are not happy as a whole, even though we benefit from living in a nation, and at a time that is the most prosperous in history.


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